Tired of working on a sheet of plywood thrown over a pair of sawhorses? Had it with rolling benches that wiggle and wobble? Hate running around your shop whenever you need a tool? Boy, do we have the bench for you.
Our dream bench starts with traditional workbench features like a thick top, a sturdy base, bench dogs and a pair of vises. Then we added tons of storage, an extra-wide top, and modern, cast-iron vises. Last but not least, we devised a simple method to make the bench mobile and still provide a rock-solid work platform.
Our bench is built to withstand generations of heavy use. Simple, stout construction absorbs vibration and can handle any woodworking procedure from chopping deep pocket mortises to routing an edge on a round tabletop.
The thick, butcher-block-style top is truly a joy to work on. We'll show you how to surface this huge top without going insane trying to level 24 separate strips of glued-up hardwood. Our top doesn't waste wood—even the offcuts are used.
Tools & Materials
If you go all out like we did you can expect to pay about $900 for materials. If you can't swing that much dough all at once, don't worry; you can build an equally functional version for about $450. How? Save $220 right off the bat by substituting common 2x4s for the maple top. We made several tops this way and they work great. Just be sure you dry your 2x4s to around 8-percent moisture content before you build. You can save $75 by skipping the expensive birch plywood and hardwood. Just stick with construction lumber. The inexpensive bench may not look as classy, but hey, it's still a great workbench.
You could build adjustable shelves inside the cabinets instead of drawers and pullout trays. They're less convenient, but it'll save you another $110 in drawer slides.
The best thing is you can cut costs and still get a fully functional bench right away, even if you go with the least expensive options. When you've got the extra cash, you can always build the maple top or add the full-extension hardware.
To build the bench you'll need a tablesaw, planer, belt or orbital sander, a router and a circular saw. You'll also want a flush-trim bit and a dado blade for your tablesaw.
Build the Cabinet
Cut the plywood parts for the three individual boxes (Parts D and E) and assemble them (Photo 1). The three boxes are joined to form the cabinet (Photo 2). Screw the two end pieces of birch plywood (H) to the cabinet, placing the screws where the face frame will cover them (Fig. A). Cut the plywood top (C) according to the actual measurements of your assembled cabinet and attach with screws. Do the same for the back (B).
Cut and assemble the three face frames (parts U through AA). Use the actual measurements of your cabinet to determine rail lengths. The face frames are built slightly oversize to give you a little wiggle room when gluing them to the carcase. The extra overhang will get trimmed off later. Clamp and glue the side frames first. Tack the frames down with a couple of brad nails so they don't scoot around under clamping pressure. Use a flush-trim bit and a router to trim the side frames even with the plywood. Attach and trim the front face frame (Photos 3 and 4).
To mount the drawer and pull-out shelf slides, turn the cabinet on its back and use a square to mark centerlines. Use a simple T-square jig to align the slides so the screw holes are on the line (Photo 5).
This is the business end of your bench. You'll want to take extra care in each step to ensure a flat, solid top. Start by rough-cutting your top stock (EE) to length (Photo 6). Cut 3/4 in. x 3/4-in. dadoes for the bench dog (JJ) into the edge of one of the top pieces (Photo 7).
Before you start to glue up the top, make use of the offcuts. Just end glue them in a line to create a full-length piece (Photo 8). I know gluing end grain is a no-no, but all you want here is to hold the pieces together long enough to build them into the top. Each segmented piece will get properly edge-glued to other full-length pieces. The result is a strong top that doesn't waste precious hardwood.
Here's how to assemble the butcher-block top without facing a sentence of hard labor sanding. Glue up three 12-in. sections of the top on a flat surface. We flipped the cabinet face down and used the back for our glue-up (Photo 9). Each 12-in. section should start and end with a full-length piece. The segmented pieces can alternate with full-length pieces. Once the
glue is good and dry (overnight is best), remove the top section from
the clamps and scrape off any squeeze out.
Now you're going to put your
portable planer to the test. Each section gets planed down to 2-1/2-in.
thickness (Photo 10). Take light cuts for the sake of your planer, and
to minimize tear-out. Try wetting the top's surface before the last
pass for the smoothest possible cut. Some minor tear-out is inevitable
with a big glue-up like this. Remember it's a workbench, not a museum
Once all three sections are surfaced, you can glue them together
(Photo 11). Do one at a time. This allows you to concentrate on keeping
each joint perfectly level. Before you use any glue, dry clamp your
sections to make sure the clamps can draw the joint tight. Even a
slightly bowed section will be hard for clamps to pull straight. (See
Oops!, below, for a nifty fix.)
Once all the sections are glued
together you'll need to trim the ends to final length. Mark the ends of
the top with a square. Continue the marks around the underside of the
top as well. Set a circular saw for a 1-1/2-in.-deep cut and clamp a
straightedge to the top so the saw cuts on the line. Make the first
cut. Then flip over the top and set the straightedge for the second
cut. Complete the cut and smooth the ends with a power sander.
Install the Vises
Installing the vises is pretty
straightforward. We added a pair of
non-marring wooden cheeks to the
vise jaws first. The large face vise
required a block (KK) to shim it down
1/8 in. below the top (Fig. A).
We had to saw notches in the block and
the bottom edge of the top to
accommodate a pair of support ribs
on the back of the vise.
Install the face vise on the top.Then
glue a couple of strips to the front edge
of the top so the edge is flush with the
wooden cheek (Photo 12).
The smaller tail vise only needs a
couple of washers to shim it down.
Build the Base
Build the base flush with the bottom of the cabinet. Pick the
straightest 2x4s you can find for the frame. If possible, we recommend
starting out with 2x6s that have been dried to about 8-percent moisture
content. Then joint and plane them to make straight and true 2x4s.
Assemble the 2x4 frame with screws. A plywood base top (A) is fastened
to the frame to finish the base.
If your bench is going to be stationary, go ahead and shim the base
level before adding the cabinet. If you want to make a mobile bench,
attach the six casters to the underside of the plywood base's top (Fig. A).
Leave just enough room for the casters to rotate freely inside the 2x4
frame. Six casters allow the bench to glide smoothly, even if your
floor is uneven. Add the base molding to finish the bench (Photo 13).
Doors, Drawers & Pull-Out Shelves
Start by cutting three door blanks (J). Add the 1/2-in.-birch edging on
all four edges. Put a 3/8-in. round-over all the way around the outside
edge of all three blanks. On the tablesaw or router table, cut a 3/8
in. x 3/8-in. rabbet on all four inside edges. Crosscut the drawer
fronts (K, L and M) out of one of the blanks and use the other two for
doors. Build and mount the drawers and pullout shelves according to (Fig. C)
Now all that's left is to secure the top to the cabinet (Photo 14).
Accommodate the expansion and contraction of the solid-wood top by
elongating the two outside holes on the angle-iron cleats under the top
(Fig. A). A simple oil finish completes the job. There, now you've got all the support you'll ever need for your woodworking.
(Note: This information may have changed since this story's original publication date.)
Home Center, Four sheets 3/4" AC fir plywood, $27 ea. ($108 total); One
sheet 3/4" birch plywood, $37; Three 8' 2x4s, $3.50 ea. ($10.50 total);
9 ft. 1-1/2" x 1-1/2" angle iron, $1.50 ea. ($14 total).
Wall Lumber Co., 800-633-4062, 90 bd. ft. 8/4 soft maple, $3 ea. (total $270); 25 bd. ft. 3/4" birch, $3 (total $75).
Woodworker's Hardware, 800-383-0130, Ten 24" full-extension drawer
slides with 1-in. overtravel, KV8405 B24 ANO, $11 ea. ($110 total); Two
3/8" inset, self-closing hinges, A07128 3, $1.50 ea. ($3 total); Six 3"
swivel-plate industrial casters, rubber, $10 ea. ($60 total);
Five 2" birch knobs, SBKR 200, 75¢ ea. ($3.75 total); 1/2" x 1-1/2"
straight cutter, CMT812.627.11, $17; 1/2" x 1-1/2" flush-trim bit,
Highland Hardware, 800-241-6748, 9" quick-release vise, 199152, $100;
7" quick-release vise, 199151, $70.
Grand total: $899.25.
Fig. A: Exploded View
Fig. B: Plywood Cutting Diagram
Fig. C: Drawers and Pullout Shelves
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2004, Issue #105.
January 2004, Issue #105
Purchase this back issue.
Click any image to see a larger version.
Tons of easy-access storage:
Full extension drawers and shelves keep your equipment organized and right at hand. There's room for hand tools, power tools and all of their accessories. Plus no bending down and fishing through dark cabinet interiors for the tool you need.
Extra-wide, heavy-duty top:
This solid maple top can take a real beating. Plus it's wide enough to double as an assembly table. If you only have room for one bench in your shop, this is it.
You name it, this bench can clamp it down:
A traditional bench dog system secures your work for machining and sanding. The modern cast-iron vises are strong yet easier to install than traditional vises. The generous overhanging top allows you to clamp anything from round tabletops to benchtop machines anywhere along the edge.
It's rock-solid but mobile:
Under the base cabinet are six heavy-duty casters that make the bench easy to move. When you're ready to use it, lift the edge of the bench with a pry bar and slip four 5/8-in.-thick, L-shaped support blocks underneath. This gives you a rock-solid feel and unlike locking casters, there's no wobble or slippage.
1. Start the base cabinet by assembling three identical boxes with butt joints and screws. Make sure all the parts are square and the joints are flush. Use a flat area, like the top of your tablesaw, to help keep things in line.
2. Screw the three boxes together to create the cabinet base. Use clamps to hold the boxes flush and even.
3. Glue and clamp face frames to the cabinet. Start with the side frames. Then add the front face frame so it overhangs the bottom of the cabinet to form a lip for the 2x4 base you'll build later.
4. Trim the face frame flush to the cabinet sides. Use a stop block at the top of the cabinet openings to prevent the router from cutting into the upper rail.
5. Attach the drawer slides to the cabinet. A simple T-square jig positions the slide for quick installation. Stop blocks hold the slides 1/2 in. back from the front edge for the half-overlay doors. The doubled-up box sides automatically flush up with the 1-1/2-in.-wide face frame so there's no need to add blocks for the drawer slides.
6. Cut pieces for the benchtop, making them 2-in. longer than the finished top. Don't toss the offcuts into the firewood pile. We'll build them into the top so nothing goes to waste.
7. Cut dadoes for the bench dog holes in one of your benchtop pieces. Use a dado blade and a miter gauge with a long auxiliary fence to support the stock. The slots are marked on the top of the piece. It's okay to eyeball each cut. Exact spacing of the holes is not critical.
8. Glue together the offcuts end to end. Clamp them between two full-length pieces to keep them straight. This yields a few more strips for the top and uses up your offcuts. Waxed paper around the joint keeps the segmented strip from sticking to the full-length pieces. We used the back of the cabinet for a flat glue-up table.
9. Glue eight strips together to form one 12-in. section of the top. Cauls keep the top pieces in alignment. The bench dog piece is placed second from the edge with the dadoes facing toward the front edge.
10. Plane each 12-in. section flat. Take light cuts and make sure your planer knives are sharp, to minimize tear-out. Outfeed support is essential when planing heavy stock like this.
11. Clamp the 12-in. sections together one at a time. You only have one joint to worry about so make it flush. Extra effort here will pay off in the end. You'll only have to lightly sand for a flat, smooth top.
12. Mount the face vise, then glue two strips on either side. This will make the front edge of the top flush with the wooden cheek of the vise.
13. Screw the cabinet onto the base and nail on the base molding. If your bench is going to be mobile, use glue as well as nails to prevent the molding from being inadvertently pried off when the bench is lifted.
14. Place the benchtop on the cabinet. This top is heavy, so get a friend to help with the lifting. Check for an even overhang on all four edges. Then secure with lag bolts.